Yellowstone Season 1 Review: "Game of Thrones" But with More Cattle

I have a new television obsession, and it is Yellowstone. This show which had been hiding (from me at least) in plain sight on the Paramount Network (where? Oh, that channel that used to be Spike TV?) tells the story of the Dutton family and their Yellowstone ranch. Spread over an acreage larger than Rhode Island, this makes them the largest private landowner in the Bozeman area and through most of Western Montana.

Yes, it's a western. It has cowboys, "Indians," and even more than that, it has politics and drama. It is a prestige drama unlike any other because of its western patina, setting, and (occasionally) tropes, but in many senses it's just Game of Thrones or Succession but with cattle, horses, and gunplay. Don't believe me? Watch the opening credits. It is stylized like Game of Thrones. The theme song sounds like Game of Thrones.

Yellowstone || image courtesy of the Paramount Network
Yellowstone || image courtesy of the Paramount Network

In those credits, you see everything you need to know. Cattle. Horses. Oil. Wind turbines. The old west. The new west. Yellowstone is about all of those elements colliding. And like Game of Thrones or Succession, it is about the politics of who will run an empire.

The Cast of "Yellowstone"

Enter the season's main antagonist: Chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham). As the newly elected representative of the adjoining Black Rock reservation, Rainwater has big plans for the valley. Just as the white men stole his peoples' land from them, so too will he use their systems, their laws, their money to buy and annex their land out from under them and return it to his people.

And that starts with manufacturing a crisis with the Duttons. A simple fence dispute and cattle rustling escalates to bloodshed, and the heir apparent to John Dutton's (Kevin Costner) management of the ranch is killed. This brings estranged son Kayce (Luke Grimes) back into his dad's orbit, as he'd been living on the reservation with his wife Monica (Kelsey Asbille) and their son Tate. Successful lawyer son Jamie (Wes Bentley) and hellion corporate raider daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly) also get more involved as Rainwater allies himself with California billionaire real estate developer Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston).

The Stakes

Their plan is to expand Jenkins' current country club into a luxury subdivision as well as a new casino and luxury hotel. This would bankrupt the Yellowstone as property values rise, which would make the taxes too expensive for them to break even on ranching, forcing them to sell. And here's the beauty of the show: Gil Birmingham is gold. He's previously been great (he should've been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Hell or High Water) but here he's the best kind of villain: the one who is convinced he's the good guy.

And the real secret? He may not be wrong. He has real grievances and is actually trying to lift his people out of poverty. And the Duttons? Not to sound like a broken record, but like Game of Thrones, like Succession, all of our main characters are real pieces of shit.

Who are we supposed to root for? John, the patriarch of the Yellowstone, who is, on paper, worth billions of dollars, who runs his ranch like a weird cult– even branding people to demonstrate they're not ever allowed to leave his employ? And who uses his political office as Livestock Commissioner to run a private police force to enforce his will who always shoots first and never asks questions ever.

Do we root for Jamie, who is running for Attorney General to extend his family's political reach? Or Beth, who is just an absolute mess? Or Kayce, trying to live in both worlds and doing a bad job at it? I guess we root for Kayce? Or maybe there's the ne'er do well ranch hands Jimmy (Jefferson White) and Walker (Ryan Bingham). We can root for them. But we're definitely not rooting for Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser), the Yellowstone ranch's foreman and the heavy/enforcer for the Dutton crime family.

What Makes 'Yellowstone" Special?

And then there's other issues that keep getting layered in:  oil and gas drilling, human trafficking and the epidemic of sexual assault against Indigenous women, politics, different rules and laws on and off the reservation. All of these should be familiar to people familiar with writer and showrunner Taylor Sheridan. Sheridan wrote Sicario and the aforementioned Hell or Highwater before both writing and directing Wind River. And like with those films, Sheridan here is a master of weaving in multiple storylines and ratcheting up tension. However, given the much larger canvas of a d0zen hours to tell a story instead of just two, he takes the time to execute a slow burn.

Yellowstone Kevin Costner Gil Birmingham
Yellowstone || image courtesy of the Paramount Network

The results are one of the best first seasons of any show in a long time. And the best part is that every single main character gets their own arc. Everyone changes and grows, and there are very real stakes. There are a few loose dangling threads that never get resolved (or are resolved too easily) but we can forgive this because of the general great quality of the rest of the show.

And then they kick it up to the next level for Season 2, which brings in Neal McDonough as the new season's main heavy. If you're still not sold, here's a video recap from Paramount:

All three seasons of Yellowstone are available to stream on Peacock.

About Andy Wilson

A mild mannered digital strategist working for an environmental nonprofit in Austin, TX roaming the interwebs fighting his nemeses by day, and by night consuming all manner of media. You can find him either on his couch or at the nearest Alamo Drafthouse catching the latest. Don't follow him on Twitter @CitizenAndy.

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